Lately I've been mentally consumed with initiative and the importance it can play to a group of PCs. I thought I'd get all these thoughts out of my mind so I can move on to obsessing about something else. In a game where your initiative isn't a set number like in D&D Next or Pathfinder, going first can make the party have a much greater chance for success. Acting first can also mean that the party holds on to expendable resources and can cover more encounters before needing to rest. Therefore almost every class can benefit from acting first for a variety of reasons that we will now discuss.
It was this thread over on the Paizo message boards that really got my mind stirring and how sometimes the classes and characters that could most benefit from winning initiative are the last to do anything to improve their initiative modifier. Really getting to go before your opponent benefits anyone involved almost all the time. If you go before the bad guys and kill them individually or by combining fire those are attacks and effects that may come with those attacks that the PCs never have to face. Don’t take attacks and you don’t need to heal, restore, cure, or anything else.
Let us start with the glass cannon type characters like wizards and sorcerers. I have player in my regular group that loves to play the damage dealing blaster capable of doing his job from a fair distance from the enemy. He does it well stacking ability modifiers, feats, class options, etc., to really put a hurting on the bad guys. The only problem is he will routinely select more damage over going first and often that means by the time his wizard-type character (we’ll just assume this includes sorcerer and other arcane types) gets his turn other party members are in the way. These area of effect specialists will often suffer from this problem and outside of a plus or two from their Dexterity usually have nothing else to assist their initiative. Then they might have to catch another PC in their blast to have maximum effect and that is a huge waste of resources, as doing damage to the enemy while harming PCs isn't very efficient.
On the flip side of damage a wizard who goes first can cast defensive spells, movement spells, or party enhancing spells before the bad guys get a chance to take any action. A haste spell done early in a combat allows for more effect. The other characters get more attacks earlier and the duration might expire during the combat instead of a round or two after the encounter has completed. Shield, mage armor, fly, and others are great ways to protect yourself before your opponents get their turns. So get your turn before they get theirs. It is really that simple and to me makes perfect sense. A feat spent getting to go first like Improved Initiative opens up a many more options than a Spell Focus feat which only helps when you cast one school of magic. Am I in the minority here with my thinking?
Even the summoning type caster can benefit by going first. The summoned creatures can attack immediately, block off the battlefield, take opportunity attacks if the bad guys do get move before the rest of the party and attempt to move toward the PCs, and provide flanking for other characters. If the rogue rolls poorly on initiative then she still has the opportunity to bring the damage because the wizard provided her with the necessary tools to do so already.
Clerics and the party buff style casters are the next type of characters we will take a look at and what winning initiative means for them and the rest of their party. If the PCs are still grouped together then the buffing style caster can more than likely enhance the damage, armor class, chances to hit, etc., of more of them. This is a big deal because the buffing caster is getting maximum effect of there spells. This is especially true if the buffing caster is getting to cast before the fighters, rogues, barbarians, paladins, rangers, etc., have yet to take their first turns because that is more enhancements earlier in the combat. This helps to ensure a quicker success which helps to have less resource expenditure after or during the combat, like healing, restoring, and curing.
If the cleric has the ability to turn or command the enemies of their party then take advantage of this before most of the party has a chance to act. It may eliminate some opponents immediately or do some damage and allow other characters to remove opponents on their turns with damage that might not have otherwise destroyed the opponents. The ability to hit multiple opponents with these types of attacks is a great advantage and damaged opponents are more quickly and easily dead opponents when other characters get their chance to take their turns.
That kind of brings us to the heavily armored, hit point heavy, or heavy hitting martial types like fighters, paladins, and barbarians. One of the best things these characters can do is close the distance with their enemies so that the characters are determining where the battle happens and protecting the squishier characters. Sure the DM can choose to have the enemies ignore them and move toward softer targets, but that allows opportunity attacks and if the heavy hitters already got an attack then the opponent might just find themselves dead for their efforts of avoidance. 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons did a great job of defining the defender for many of these types of characters and regardless of what game you are playing that holds true. These tough characters getting in position to damage the enemy and protect the party is what they do better than most any other characters.
Rogues have abilities that need certain circumstances to be effective, like sneak attack. That really doesn't mean that they need to go first. It can help but a handful of summoned creatures or some heavy hitting hammer type characters can provide flanking if they go first and allow the rogue to position themselves to use their sneak attack without going first in the initiative order. Needing a high Dexterity score will mean that the rogue will more than likely have a decent bonus to their initiative by the very nature of an effective build. In Pathfinder rogue talents like Assault Leader are only effective if other characters are in a position to take advantage of them.
Once a party has beaten their opponents in initiative they can delay their actions to get into the best position possible. If the ranger wins initiative perhaps he delays until the sorcerer hits the opponents with a fireball and then she picks off already seriously damaged enemies who might have survived making their saves. Once the party wins initiative they dictate the pace of the combat and gain a significant advantage over the baddies.
There are some games that handle initiative in a variety of ways that are different from rolling a die and adding a modifier and then working through from highest to lowest, Star Wars Edge of the Empire by Fantasy Flight Games and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game by Margaret Weis Productions spring to mind. None of this applies to games like that obviously. Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, 13th Age, and Dungeon Crawl Classics use a more traditional form of setting the encounter order and these thoughts work best when applied to those games. What sort of importance do you place on initiative with your characters or wish that other players placed with their characters? I know their are some strong opinions out their in the rpg community on this and would love to hear what you think so leave a comment, and until next time, Roll Hard!
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